Mary Black,
Mary Black
(Dara, 1983)

My brother has a strange songs-to-dollars ratio that must be what he deems "reasonable" before he will buy a CD (for example, 12 songs for $15 is great at just over a dollar per song, but nine songs for $17 is bad as the price per song creeps up towards $2). So if my brother listened to folk music, he would never have bought Mary Black's self-titled solo debut recording as it has only nine tracks but costs as much as a longer CD.

And he would have missed out on a wonderful album.

Black has infused each song with her rich, strong voice, and though sometimes the arrangements are a bit lacking, that can all be forgiven to hear the singing.

Each of the nine tracks has something unique to offer, either in terms of arrangement, instrumentation, vocals or lyrics. But as the album was recorded before liner notes became an art form unto themselves (which has its own little sub-formula in my brother's figuring), these are the absolute barest I have ever seen. None of the songs has a writer, none of the musicians are credited; it is really just a bit of paper in the front of the case. This leaves rather a lot of mystery as to who did what and where the songs came from.

The first two tracks have a strong country influence, with country-style guitar in "Rose of Allendale" and an upbeat tempo on "Lovin' You." The songs turn more traditional sounding after that. "Loving Hannah" is a beautiful lament sung heartbreakingly with soft guitars as accompaniment. "My Donald," a love song about a sailor who has been roving, is sung almost a cappella (yes, you can have "almost a cappella" -- there are only a few chords played on guitar). Evoking the tragedy of lost love, Black's voice sounds distraught.

"Crusader" brings us back to a more contemporary sound. With references to the Australian desert, travel and finding yourself, it is an inspiring song for anyone feeling a bit lost.

"Anachie Gordon" is the highlight of the album. It is strikingly different from Loreena McKennitt's version, though no less moving. Sung at a faster tempo with only guitar in the background, it is more personal sounding than McKennitt's rendition. And it puts to rest once and for all the misinformation that McKennitt wrote it, as this was recorded prior to her 1989 version. (Although she has never made such a claim herself, citing it as traditional, the song is often mistakenly attributed to her.) Due to the mysterious lack of credits here, its actual composer and history remain unknown.

Then it is back to the country feel on "Home," the blues-influenced "God Bless the Child" and finishing with "Rare's Hill," which has a very traditional sound to it.

Black's first solo album is a rare treat. A nice mixture of sounds and tempos, all sung with her strong, passionate vocals, it is well worth forgoing any songs to dollars ratio for. This is quality over quantity.

- Rambles
written by Jean Emma Price
published 26 June 2004

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